DURHAM — As a published author even before he graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2006, many might have expected Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove to move to a bigger city with brighter job prospects.
But instead, Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, have dug their heels into the floorboards of a sagging 11/2-story bungalow in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, where they have lived for the past seven years. The Wilson-Hartgroves have no plans to move, either.
In his new book, "The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture" (Paraclete Press), he explains why.
"We felt that by moving again and again we could get to a place where you dig 10 wells 3 feet deep and never strike water," said Wilson-Hartgrove, 29.
The Wilson-Hartgroves see stability as a virtue. The couple consider themselves modern-day monks, devoted to a religious community of like-minded people who practice prayer, contemplation and works of justice.
Unlike the monks of the past, these Protestant monastics do not require celibacy, singleness or seclusion.
But they do require sharing economic resources and extending hospitality to the stranger.
The Wilson-Hartgroves run a house of hospitality in Walltown where people who are temporarily homeless can live for a few weeks or several months.
Although the percentage has been slowing, Americans are among the most mobile people on the planet. Each year 12 percent of Americans - about 35 million - move from one residence to another.
Wilson-Hartgrove, who was born north of Winston-Salem in the town of King, could have been one of them. He has helped build schools in Africa, dug latrines in the Dominican Republic, played with children from the barrio in Venezuela and protested for peace in Iraq.
Yet these days he reflects on the early Christian monks such as the fourth century Abba Moses, who said: "Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."
"I think Jonathan has hit upon a crucial issue for our cultural moment," said Lauren Winner, assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School.
"The characteristic of modern people is that we are rootless. Of course, that rootlessness has benefits, cultural, social, spiritual; being literally 'a citizen of the world.' But there are also great costs to that rootlessness, and Jonathan's book is striking right at the core."
Always on the move
As Wilson-Hartgrove notes, staying isn't easy. The temptation to flee presents itself in what one early Christian wrote as the "noon-day devil."
People who move constantly may be trying to escape personal issues, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, but there's no running from yourself; because conflicts will follow.
"Stability,' he said, "is a commitment to face into that problem and grow."
Wilson-Hartgrove knows some moves are inevitable, and it's not always possible to circumvent an economic system built around a global culture. But his book challenges readers to behave as though they're going to stay.
That might mean getting involved in local schools, even when a person has no children or the children are grown.
The idea of establishing roots in the face of an unknown future is a Christian response, Wilson-Hartgrove said. "That's embracing the way of the cross - Jesus' willingness to give himself to serve," he said, "to lay down his life for others."
For the Wilson-Hartgroves, that life of service has meant starting a program for middle school students, Walltown Aspiring Youth or WAY. The program teams children with a coach who can work with a child's parents, schoolteachers or coaches to make sure the youngster is able to avoid diversions that can lead to gangs or prison.
Wilson-Hartgrove has also started a writing class that allows students at the Duke Divinity School to earn credit while writing spiritual autobiographies alongside inmates at two local prisons.
He is working with the city to establish a sister city relationship with Rutba, Iraq. The Wilson-Hartgroves visited the city in 2003 and named their house of hospitality the Rutba House.
For the 12 people who live in the two Rutba houses - one on Berkeley, the other on Onslow Street - life follows a prescribed routine: morning and evening prayer, a shared evening meal, a weekly Bible study, a weekly business meeting at which decisions are made about buying food and necessities, paying the bills, doing the chores.
Wilson-Hartgrove hopes a book on stability will find readers who are interested in the type of growth that can only happen when a person stays put.
"I hope it will be helpful to anyone who has tried to plant themselves in a place and in a community," he said, "and who recognizes that one aspect of that is the inner life and the challenges that come up within ourselves."
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